It’s a human invention [time]. Created to break up day and night, as if the setting sun weren’t enough.The Old Irishman
“No,” Xander tells himself, “Not again. Never again!” he drops the phone and picks up an eight-inch knife from the counter, whispers a prayer of protection, and without another thought, plunges the blade into his chest, slipping it between the fourth and fifth ribs, penetrating his lung and piercing his heart in an instant.
There is a simple explanation why Xander, an outwardly unassuming man in his mid-forties, would act out such a violent end. Still, to understand the reason, you must first understand the man.
* * *
Unassuming is an excellent yet misleading description for Xander. His name alone raises eyebrows at the mention. Xander Bowes. Xander, shortened from Alexander, maintains an imposing historical pedigree. Xander has gone by several names, but each a version of his original: Alexander. Other than his name, Xander wishes for nothing more than to blend in. Xander in North America seemed fitting, as it’s grown in popularity over the past ten years. Still, it was more exotic than he’d have liked, but he did not choose the name. The Circle chose it for him, as they did everything.
In America, he’s managed a family. Since he was known as Alexander on the British Isles, where he was father to four children, this had been denied him. Two would die of consumption before their fourth birthdays, and the others perished in the Great War. His wife, driven mad by grief, took her own life when the last of her sons was declared dead, leaving him alone and left to wander.
In the years to follow, lost within Ireland’s vast wilderness, and before he made the pilgrimage to America, he met a man who’d offered him a ride in his automobile during a considerably long walking stint. The well-dressed man took him home to his sprawling country mansion. He gave him food and drink, settling on Alexander’s Gaelic name after studying the drifter while he ate. Calling the bearded Xander; Alasdair.
“My name is Alexander,” Xander would tell him. Still, the older man would have none of it, waving a dismissive hand, insisting a Gaelic name was more potent than anything the English could offer him.
“Bah! You’re a stout lad,” the man said. “Deserving of a strong name. A Gaelic name.”
Xander nodded and offered his kind benefactor his story.
“It’s a ruinous one, yours,” the Irishman said after hearing of Xander’s terrible losses. “Proof of the strength in you, laddy. Tell me, what have your travels taught you?” He halved a loaf of bread and placed a piece next to the stew in front of Xander.
“Life is hard,” Xander told him, as he stared at the bowl of steaming mutton and potato stew. “So, death must be easy.” He looked up slowly yet expectantly at his host.
At this, the Irish gentleman cackled, enamoured by the Englishman’s candor. “The Yin and the Yang!” He proclaimed. “You’ve learned a valuable lesson then… for what I would ask of you.”
“I am in your debt,” Xander replied hollowly, running a finger over the rigid crust of the bread in front of him. “Ask.”
“I am a keeper of knowledge, Alasdair, one of many who have attached themselves to a code of ethics. But more than that, sworn to protect that knowledge against those who would take it.”
“Why do you hide it from others?” Xander wondered, picking at the bread, waiting for the stew to cool.
“Because it’s not earthly knowledge which we covet, lad. This is wisdom that penetrates the afterlife. Proof of the afterlife and all that comes along with it. The good and the bad.” His host explained.
“Why tell me this?”
“Because there is a strength in you,” he reaffirmed. “You have suffered much, but you are here. It is not by chance. None who make a journey such as yours ever comes by anything by accident. That we’ve met is fate. I could meditate on this and confirm my assumption true, but I’d rather teach you to do that for yourself.”
“Are you asking me to be your – student? I’m a little old to be a student of anything.” He spooned up a heaping helping of the stew and blew on it.
“Age is nothing,” he began. “You would choke on your mutton if I told you how long some have existed in this physical world – this dimension. But then, time is a construct. Meaningless.”
“Time is meaningless?” Xander asked, thinking back on the times he’d spent with his wife and children. Not nearly long enough, he’d tell himself.
“Has it meant anything to you since you began your walk? Time?” Xander took a moment. No, he decided. It had not. He shook his head. “Did it matter to you what time it was when I picked you up? Did you care? In your grief, Alasdair, you have stumbled upon one of life’s greatest secrets.”
“Time?” Xander took the spoonful of stew into his mouth.
“The lack of it,” the old man told him. “The absence of it. It’s a human invention. Created to break up day and night, as if the setting sun weren’t enough. Its invention further embedded us into this physical plane. Now, it’s all most any of us know. Wars are fought for land because it’s all we can see. We don’t recognize anything beyond this material realm as we once did.”
“What you say is interesting,” Xander offered, the stew reanimating his spirit. “And perhaps even resonates with me, but is surely beyond my scope of understanding.”
“It’s not, laddy, and I want to show you everything.” The host chewed a piece of the bread hungrily.
“But you’re sworn to protect that knowledge, not share it. That’s what you said.” That is how Xander understood it anyway.
“Those like me, who protect the wisdom, are sanctioned to reveal it to a chosen few to keep our numbers flush.” The old man looked thoughtful a moment and pointed a thumb behind him, still chewing. “We lost a member last night.”
“I’m sorry,” Xander said.
“But here you are,” the old man said. “You, trudging along on a path of enlightenment, who I picked up in a terrible rainstorm. You.” His eyes shone a moment as his lips spread out to reveal his well-kept teeth in a short but startling laugh. Xander wondered whether they were fake.
“Me, you want me to learn this knowledge?” Xander didn’t know how to take this. He’d been alone so long. To be a keeper of some ancient secret seemed well beyond his capability.
“Not just learn it, protect it. You’ve no one to go home to, Alasdair but me now. You’ve reached the end of your walk.” The host laughed again and spread his arms out from his sides. “Now, we start you running!”
Meeting the others within this Circle of protection was an emotional and exciting time for Xander. He was shedding the weight of his lost life and devouring the knowledge they’d offered. Meditation became second-nature. Entering the realm of knowledge within their primal practices gave him immediate satisfaction. Meeting the being who, for lack of a better term, managed the place in-between physical life and the real afterlife felt akin to falling in love. They called it the in-between, where spirits wander until an individual had learned enough to take the next step on the ladder of enlightenment.
Dimensions exist there, which were explained as parallel universes—other choices made by billions of individuals creating infinite paths. The concept was unfathomable and all at once clear as day to Xander in the rapture of practiced meditation.
Much happened between then and now. Xander was placed in Spain and Italy for extended tenures after his time in Ireland, protecting the ancient knowledge in the very places it was born. He was known as Alejandro in Spain and Alessandro in Italy. A sword, a bullet, and a knife took all three names out of the sacred Circle defending the knowledge. Xander, returning from the in-between each time with a new location and revision on his original name. Xander was born of his last relocation, the temple of knowledge in America, where he had a family and kept the secret, protecting it from those who would attempt to banish it. Eventually, as with all good things, this place too was found out. A group known to the Circle as the Darkness began to sack temples all over the world. They would target the Circle’s members and their families. Eliminating them as they went from temple to temple; denied the wisdom within each time. But it was later learned that it was not the knowledge they were after. It was the annihilation of the earthly comprehension of an afterlife they were sworn to deliver.
The American temple was the last, the old world taken first. So, with Xander alone rested the earthly knowledge. All those before him gone to the next rung on the ladder of enlightenment. At that moment, he would receive a phone call. It was a police officer.
The devastating news that his child has died in a car accident forces Xander to drop the phone and pick up a knife from the counter. He whispers a prayer of protection and, without another thought, plunges the blade into his chest.
In the in-between, he fights off demons as they rush his astral form. He’s weak, having committed the sin of suicide. Still, his ancient prayer of protection has given him the edge. He calls for his daughter, pushing beyond the demons with his practiced spells, uttering incantations, his voice echoing through dimensions and the seemingly impenetrable darkness of the in-between.
He hears her small voice and lights a flame in his astral hand, dropping others to mislead the sprights. She appears confused yet happy, her innocence making her oblivious to any evils lurking in the shadows.
“Where am I, daddy?”
“The in-between, love,” he replies.
“I was in the car with mommy,” she explains.
“You’re with daddy now,” he says quietly. “We’re beyond mommy’s reach here. We need to get you back.”
“Is this a dream?” Jenny wonders, her curious innocence making Xander weepy.
“It’s like a dream.” He nods.
“I like it here. It’s strange though,” she admits, her personality shining through. She is clearly elated to find her father. He places an astral hand on her transparent head, and they experience a warmth melt into them – the love they share embracing and emboldening them.
“It’s too soon for you, love,” he insists. “Your mother needs you. The world needs your heart. This place can wait.” He peers with his astral eyes everywhere she could have come from. “Have you wandered long?”
“I – I don’t know,” she admits. “What time is it? When did I get here?”
“We do not experience time in this place, Jenny,” he begins. “But the sooner we find your entry point, the better chance we have of accessing it and putting you back in your little body.” The darkness ripples: excited for a new arrival. Xander’s vision adjusts to what light there is. He sees in dimensions.
His five-year-old looks further confused by this statement. “I’m in my body,” Jenny tells him, pushing her arms out to show him.
“No, sweet girl, you are outside your body.”
“But you’re not,” she says.
“I am. It’s just how you identify with me. Here you recognize one’s aura or spirit. It is more intimate than what we experience in the physical world, the one I need you to go back to.” He places a gentle finger on her tiny nose as his consciousness scans for her entry point.
“I like it here,” Jenny explains.
“Yes, we all do, but you must go back to your mother. She needs you.”
“What will you do?”
“I’ll come back,” he says. “But I will come back in another form. I’ll come back as quickly as I can.” His spirit soars as his third eye locates Jenny’s origin.
“You have to come back if I’m going back,” she insists as he leads her by the astral hand to the opening in the dark fabric of the in-between, where her soul slipped out of her body.
“I’ll join you as soon as I can, love. You be good. You fall back into your body. Remember this peace. Remember me. I love you.” He touches the space between her eyes with his astral finger, embedding his aura in her memory. She slides through the closing tear, and he watches as her physical body flinches and eyes open. She cries as any five-year-old might at the bump on her head and the broken ribs. The paramedics are shocked into action where once there was a deceased child, now there lay a living one—his spirit leaps.
The demons are back. “Tormentors,” he whispers to himself, floating between dimensions. It is not his first astral journey, but it has been his most assertive to date. Having visited this place many times through meditation, he knew there was no time to prepare once he’d gotten the call about his daughter. The only other way to enter this place was through the door that death opens, and though he’s opened that door three times prior, he had hoped to never have to open it again.
Next, he must find the light which will lead him to reincarnation.
More demons, and then, it. The one responsible for this place, the one whose rules he now bends to his will. It, who will not be pleased to see him again, so soon.
“Xander,” the ‘voice’ vibrates through his astral body. “You continue to use the in-between as your playground.”
“The more you know,” Xander says comically, disappearing and reappearing in the endless multiverses the in-between caters to.
“Because you know things, isn’t an invitation to practice them recklessly,” it replies, unamused.
“My daughter’s time was not now,” he explains.
“What do you know of what the universe has in store for her?”
“I know her mother needs her,” he continues. “I know the world needs her heart.”
“You alter things you do not understand when you play your games here, Xander.” The voice is stern and deep now.
“I know what I’m doing.”
“You don’t,” it insists. “You think you are my equal, you are not!”
“Agree to disagree,” he says, floating, wishing he could view the scene where his physical form lay motionless on his kitchen floor. But that tear is closed. He can’t re-enter that body. It is truly dead.
“What if I decide you do not deserve another chance to return to the physical universe?” It asks.
“Oh, come on,” he presses. “You need me there as much as the Circle needs you here. We’re a team!”
“The Circle was developed to protect the in-between, not use it as you do.”
“Why did the universe feel my daughter was ready to come here?”
“That is not for either of us to know, Xander. You recognize that.”
“Yes, but I don’t understand it.”
“You cannot understand it. You have the sight, but that only takes you so far.”
“And what about you? Why do you remain here, in the dark, welcoming souls and sending them back? Is this all there is for you?” He keeps the voice busy while he frantically looks for an opening in his present.
“I owe you no explanations.”
“The Circle is failing in the physical universe; did you know that?” Xander offers.
“I know you mean well, Xander, but to practice deceit in this place is a sin even you will not walk away from.”
“It’s not a lie,” he insists. “The Circle has been penetrated. I’m all that’s left. The others have supplanted the in-between and found footing on the next rung. I need to return quickly. I need a body to get a message to my wife and daughter.”
They are clever, you are not, for doing their bidding.The It
“You did not share your part in the Circle with them.” It says severely.
“Of course not, but because we’ve been found out, whoever is behind the event knows our members. Thus, they know our families, and -”
“You fear for their mortal lives?”
“It’s already happened,” he says to himself. “The car accident that sent my daughter here, they’re after our families. They’re killing them in the hopes we’ll rush to the in-between and save them, killing ourselves.”
“They are clever,” it states. “You are not, for doing their bidding.”
“I need to get back!”
“Whoever they are, they’ve accomplished their goal. You are here.”
“Something’s not right.”
“You have done the Circle a disservice, Xander. You have taken your own life to save your child’s, betraying the trust of your peers. Betraying the position you were bestowed a century ago. Four times you’ve done this. Never to learn.”
“What are you saying?” The conversation is beginning to distort Xander’s surroundings. Has the voice located him?
“Your wife and daughter are safe.”
“How can you know that?”
“You are here, and you’ll not be returned.” It states plainly.
“There is no one else to carry the knowledge. They’re all gone!”
“Perhaps this knowledge should be lost to humanity,” it ponders.
“There are other ways,” Xander threatens. “I don’t have to go through you!”
“You would defy me again!?”
“Then go,” it tells him after a time.
“I’m sorry I’ve used this place against its design,” he explains, locating a potential exit. “I’ve never had a choice. My work was not finished. I need to do what’s right.” He follows a tear in the distance that opens to his previous plain.
“After so many years, Xander, you refuse to bend to the rules.” It laughs now. “You would be my favourite, were I to allow myself such recreations. Go now, do as you will, but understand you are going against the natural laws in doing so.”
“I realize that,” he says sincerely. “I will see you again,” Xander says. A tired huff from the voice, “Of that, there is no question.” It says back, inferring Xander may never find himself skipping the in-between for a higher rung. Xander slips through a tear into the material now as a soul enters the in-between from a massive heart-attack, Xander’s spirit slips into the collapsed body. Using his kinetic energy to resuscitate the heart, the plaque clogging the man’s arteries dissolves. Standing and coughing enthusiastically to a gawking crowd, he moves through an unfamiliar cityscape.
How will I get to my family, he wonders? Looking up at a sign, he sees he is in New Orleans. People are everywhere. Beads adorn his neck. Twilight colours the busy street. New Orleans is home to Voodoo, he thinks, smiling. These people understand me. He rushes in the direction of a flickering sign which reads: Doctor Voodoo.
He seems to be in the throws of Mardi Gras and staggers on his new legs to navigate the bodies on Bourbon street. The building he has targeted is built in the Creole townhouse-style complete with a steeply-pitched roof, parapets, side gables, and roof dormers. He enters under the arched opening and pushes back the strung beads. A dozen people rummage through the gift shop in the front room. A dozen people in this room is a half dozen too many, he thinks. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he realizes why he feels so claustrophobic in this new body. The dead man, whose body he has hi-jacked, is morbidly overweight and sweating profusely.
“Ya get what ya pay for,” he tells himself, straightening his collar and searching his pockets for a hanky to wipe his massive brow. He imagines laughter from the in-between as it watches him from the darkness.
A dark man approaches rapidly from behind a curtain hung beside the mirror. His brown eyes stare at Xander penetratingly. Xander stares back.
“You’ve come to us from elsewhere,” the man says in a Creole accent, long thin fingers move slowly around Xander’s large frame.
“Eighty percent of your visitors probably come from elsewhere on a night like this,” Xander says back. “Hardly voodoo.”
The man steps back, his smile igniting the room; his white teeth shine against the deep brown of his skin. “I don’t mean of this world, fat man!” He laughs, and Xander, startled, laughs at his new, grotesque form.
“Kidding, mes amies, I’ve known zombies. You’re something else entirely.”Ferdinand
“Moments ago, I was quite fit.”
“Body snatcher!” They laugh again. “Come with me if you’ll fit!” He takes Xander’s arm and pulls him behind the curtain.
“What do you know?” Xander asks, suddenly anxious that this might just be a rouse to lure an unsuspecting tourist into a back room.
“I felt your presence the moment you’d crossed my threshold. Your spirit is detached from this one.” He again motions his long fingers before Xander’s ridiculous, protruding belly. Xander takes the man’s hands and pushes them gently away. Maybe he’s sincere. To move the meeting along, Xander decides to reveal his truths.
“Yes, this man died, and I took his corpse to complete my purpose.”
“A zombie!” He exclaims. “Kidding, mes amies, I’ve known zombies. You’re something else entirely.”
“I need to get to Chicago. My family is in danger.” He feels spittle fly out of his mouth and onto his plump bottom lip.
“A noble cause,” the black man says. “Is this why they let you come back?”
“I let myself come back,” Xander explains. “I’m a keeper of knowledge—the last of my kind. I’ve come back to find my family and ensure the knowledge is not lost. I owe my mentor that much.”
“You won’t get far in this body,” he tells him. “Is it any wonder he died tonight? Or perhaps the larger mystery is how he managed as long as he has.”
“It was a choice I had to make on the fly,” Xander explains. “If I’d had a moment to consider the recently deceased, I’d have looked closer to home.”
“And here you are, in the French Quarter, a would-be zombie amongst us. In my own shop!” He laughs again. It is an infectious laugh, and Xander smiles. “How can I help?”
“There is a group hunting my membership. I’m the last, as I’ve mentioned. I need a prediction or soft lead of some kind telling me where to avoid.”
“Chicago,” he says lightheartedly.
“Mes amies, I kid.” He rounds a small tabletop and drops a deck of cards. “Tarot,” he tells him. “Cut the deck.” Xander does so, mindful of his recently acquired girth, careful not to knock the table over with his front-butt.
“You’re definitely from the spirit realm,” he confers, turning a card. “You are in danger. You are determined, frustrated.”
“Yes, yes, we know all of this,” Xander is impatient now, thoughts of his daughter in a hospital room with her mother recovering from their accident.
“Your wife and daughter wait for you,” he says, flipping one card after another. “Your daughter has made a miraculous journey. She has seen the other side.” He looks up at Xander. “But she’s returned.”
“Right, I put her back in her body before the opportunity was lost.”
“You killed yourself to save her?”
“Yes,” he raises his pudgy hands, showing them to the voodoo priest.
“A sin,” The man backs off.
“Perhaps, but for the greater good,” Xander says as convincingly as he can.
“Perhaps,” he comes back to the table and flips a card. “You will go to Chicago. You will face your enemy,” another card. “You will see your family again.”
“In what capacity will I see them again?”
“That will depend on the manner in which you meet your enemies first.” The Priest forebodingly.
“That’ll have to do.” Xander turns in the tiny room, and his ass knocks over a tall thin carving. “Damn this body!” He bends to right the statue. “If I go back again, it will try to stop me.”
“It? Do you mean God?”
“Nope, I mean it. The one manning the in-between. Doesn’t have a name. Manages the whole purgatory racket, I guess you could call it.” He fans his face with his broad hands.
“You are a powerful wizard,” the Priest says, nodding his head. “You’ve met this it?”
“Never met the guy, not even sure I should call it a guy. Just a voice, in as much as a voice can carry in a dark vacuum. Nothing is solid there. We’re all spirit. Dimensions blink in and out constantly. Universes blink in and out.”
“Fascinating. Might I go there?”
“I could show you,” Xander considers. “With much practice, meditation will place you there. I could teach you.” He remembers what his kindly old Irish mentor had taught him about accidents one-hundred years earlier. “There are no coincidences in meeting someone of your calibre. You seem already very in tune with what I’ve told you. You would become a keeper of the knowledge. A protector of it.”
“I would do as you directed,” he bows theatrically, one hand holding his top hat in place, excited for the opportunity.
“Then travel with me to Chicago. I need to be by their side.” Xander proposes.
“Will they recognize you?”
“Not Lexi – my wife, but my daughter, Jenny, might.”
“How?” The Priest’s head pushes back, his top hat bumping the low ceiling.
“She saw me for what I truly am in the in-between. She will carry that with her now. At least for a little while. I told her I would come back.” He feels suddenly uneasy, his heart audibly beating under the blubber and muscle and bone of his chest. “I have to get back.”
“Then allow me to prepare a bag mes amies,” and the Priest is off like a shot, climbing the squeaky wooden steps. Xander sits with a heavy thud upon a small, upholstered loveseat. Dust and the stench of moist fabric rise around him. He waves it away, too exhausted to stand and take the steps necessary to remove himself from the toxic cloud.
Moments later, the Priest returns with a black sack over his shoulder. “We go?” Xander nods and expends entirely too much energy pushing himself up from the sunken loveseat. The Priest takes Xanders massive arm and pulls. “Perhaps we put you on an exercise regime?” He says with a smile.
“How does a man allow this to happen to himself?” Xander wonders, guessing he weighs in excess of four-hundred pounds. He turns slowly to exit the curtain. “Do you have a car?” He asks the Priest.
“I have just exactly what we need,” he replies, guiding Xander’s massive frame through the back of the house and onto an open, gravel driveway. “Viola!”
Xander follows the Priest’s long arm as it pans the space before them, landing on a black 1950’s Packard cavalier. “Roomy,” he says, laying both hands awkwardly over his protruding belly.
“It has a straight-eight, 327-cubic-inch Thunderbolt motor, 180hp, 9 main bearings, four-barrel Carter carburetor, Ultramatic trans, Easmatic power brakes, power steering, radio.” He stops himself, looking Xander over once more. “And yes, it is very roomy. I have owned this automobile since 2007.”
“It looks to be in immaculate shape,” Xander turns to the Priest. “I never got your name.”
Oh, Monsieur, you do not want to make a claim like that to one who practices the dark magicFerdinand
“Dr. Voodoo,” he says with a smile. “Did you not see my sign?” He rounds the classic car and throws his sac in the back seat. “I am Ferdinand,” he bows, removing the top hat, revealing a closely shaved head.
“I’m in your debt, Ferdinand,” Xander tells him.
“Oh, Monsieur, you do not want to make a claim like that to one who practices the dark magic. Let’s just say we’re even when you show me how to visit the in-between, as you call it.”
“Deal,” he says, taking the first of three rickety wooden steps to the gravel. Ferdinand navigates him around the front of the car, placing him in the passenger seat.
“I’m just going to let my partner know I will be away for a time,” Ferdinand tells him, rushing back into the house.
Xander feels comfortable for the first time sitting on the bench seat of the cavalier since occupying this morbidly obese body. He begins to rifle through the pockets of the pants and jacket for a wallet. He hits pay-dirt with a money clip. Counting the bills, he realizes he has landed in the frame of a wealthy man. Could a fat man like this be anything but rich? He asks himself and ends the count at two-thousand dollars. He’s pleased. Three credit cards also appear in a wallet jammed in his front pant’s pocket. It is a struggle to free it. An I.D. occupies the space as well, and he reads the name: Thomas Cuddlephish. Address puts him in Winnetka, Chicago. A stroke of good luck! Though he was of the upper-middle class in his former life, he could only dream of living in one of these posh North Shore communities of Chicago.
The driver’s door opens, and Ferdinand slides onto the velour bench, still inches to spare between them. “We go?” He turns the key, and the Thunderbolt engine purrs to life.
The car bypasses the madness of Mardi Gras via St. Ann street, pulls onto North Rampart, makes an abrupt right onto Toulouse, winding around to Basin street, finally merging onto highway 10. By the time they reach highway 55, they are well on their way, and Xander can relax. The weight of his body pressing down on his ribcage makes it challenging to take a full breath. It mirrors the proverbial weight on his shoulders, he thinks. He can’t imagine running to anyone’s rescue in a body such as this but will do his utmost. If only he’d had more time in the in-between. That notwithstanding, he did meet Ferdinand. This man could be a valuable asset to the Circle. He looks to the Priest driving the classic car, a smile stamped across his face. Beads and talismans hang from around his neck, displayed over a white tank top. Ferdinand’s top hat sits between them. As they make their way north, the moist chill in the air reminds Xander of his time with his Irish benefactor. More importantly, of his family home at the base of the Great Lakes.
They have stopped three times; the cavalier has an appetite for gasoline. Just as well. This body seems to produce urine from thin air. At the third stop, Xander pees again and bends to his new body’s insistence it be fed. He buys up three hotdogs from the roller pins on the gas station counter, two bags of chips, two candy bars, and a gallon of cola. Naturally, he would never eat such a ghastly assortment of toxins. Still, for whatever reason, his pudgy hands seem drawn to the junk food. Strangely, he feels compelled to purchase a three-pack of cigars as well. Then, eyeing the whisky behind the teller, he asks for a bottle. The total comes to just under $200 with the gas, and Xander pays the indifferent twenty-something behind the counter.
“I have a friend in there,” Ferdinand tells Xander as they walk back to the car. Xander looks at the massive facility: Pontiac Correctional Center. “We’re about two hours from our destination.”
“Good,” Xander says after tearing a bite out of the stale dog. He pulls out the fat man’s license to punch the address into his phone. The phone recognizes the address as ‘home.’ “Yup, two hours, three minutes. I wonder what we’ll find when I get home.”
“A fat wife?” Ferdinand laughs at himself. Xander smiles and shakes his head, feeling the weight of his jowls shift back and forth under the momentum.
“Sheridan Road.” He says knowingly. “She’s probably a trophy wife,” Xander explains. “Unless she’s the one bringing home the bacon.” He accepts his new friend’s questioning glance. “Yeah, I don’t think I’m much of a trophy husband.”
“What if she’s there?” Ferdinand asks. “What if we left her in New Orleans?” Xander asks back. The men laugh at themselves and settle into the cavalier.
Staring at Xander’s junk food, the Priest looks offended. “Just borrowing this body, I see, mes amies?” He uses his long, thin face to his advantage when grimacing. It is all at once, comical and terrifying.
“It’s like the body knew what it wanted,” Xander admits. “I don’t drink or smoke either but,” he presents the bottle of whisky and box of cigars. The Priest’s head jerks back again.
“This man, this Mr. Cuddlephish, ought to have expired long ago,” Ferdinand says, disgusted. “But I will take both,” he gingerly relieves Xander of the items. “My magic requires them on occasion, as do my nerves.” He winks at the fat man roaring away from the station once the contraband is safely stowed under his seat.
“Which hospital is your family at?” The Priest asks.
“Mercy works. Closest to the accident.” Xander says, feeling it’s taken him far too long to get there. Visions of men in black standing over her, awaiting his return, tear him up. “We’ll go directly to the hospital. Home can wait.”
“But of course, Xander.” Ferdinand understands. “Look in the glove compartment there in front of you.” Xander shifts his weight, arching forward, wrestling with his stomach to reach the compartment’s latch. “That is if you can,” Ferdinand adds, laughing. Xander sends him a frustrated look. The reality of being trapped in this body is beginning to wear on him. “I apologize, my friend.” He says, hand to his heart. The Priest then reaches past Xander, pulls open the compartment, and emerges with a pistol. Xander takes it gladly.
The weapon, like the car Ferdinand drives, is a relic. Xander inspects the cylinder first to be sure it’s not loaded. Then he moves on to the barrel and sight. Xander pulls the hammer backward and slowly eases it back to its closed position. He releases the trigger and, pointing the muzzle at the window, pulls the trigger back until the hammer snaps. “Bullets?”
“Oui, under your seat.” He looks at Xander. “But I’ll fetch them for you once we’ve reached the hospital.
“Did you get the gun with the purchase of the car?”
“As a matter of fact,” Ferdinand winks again. “No, mes amies. This is my father’s gun. The same he killed himself with thirty years ago.” Xander flinches, not prepared for a sad story to accompany the weapon’s description. “Ah, it is the past. He was a troubled man. I was fifteen. When he came to this country from Haiti, he swore he’d been cursed for leaving. He never got past that, and one day -“
“I’m sorry, Ferdinand,” Xander places his thick fingers awkwardly on the Priest’s slender shoulder. Ferdinand shrugs.
“It got me interested in Voodoo. I even tried to resurrect him once.” He laughs a sad laugh. “Unsuccessful.” He announces as if it could have been anything but. “But you, look at you, Xander. Alive and well in another after committing the same. It is a miraculous thing.”
“It is a known thing to those in the know, Ferdinand. Nothing more.”
“Do you think my father might have known?” The Priest asks, hopefully.
“I – I can’t answer that, I don’t know whether -” Ferdinand jabs a friendly elbow into the fat of Xander’s side jokingly. “I wouldn’t expect you to know, Xander.” He laughs again in his carefree way. Xander feels silly. “But tell me something, what does it say about suicide?”
“Are you asking me for real?” Xander plays with the handle of the gun on his lap.
“He was as Catholic as the next Haitian. He knew it was wrong. I hope he did not pass any bad joujou onto that gun.” Ferdinand nods at the heavy pistol in Xander’s lap. Xander looks down at it, nervously now.
“I don’t know what its opinion on suicide is, save he doesn’t much like it when I keep offing myself and showing up on his doorstep. Honestly.” Xander says, blinking away images of the sprights and demons who stalked him during his last transference. This seems to be enough for the Priest.
“You said you could meditate your way into the in-between,” Ferdinand recalls from the long drive. “I should like that better than the alternative.”
Xander smirks as he continues to study the gun. “Yes, of course, you would not need to kill yourself. The meditation, a specific meditation which I will teach you, raises your vibration from this lowly realm to the ethereal, and beyond, where the in-between waits for every man.”
“To It.” The Priest relates, raising a bottled water. “I should like to speak to it.”
“And you will, Ferdinand,” Xander assures him. “A man like you ought to take to the process quickly. Nothing about it is easy, but your history tells me you will make tremendous leaps in the learning.”
Ferdinand is comfortable with that explanation and changes the subject. “What is the plan when we arrive at the hospital? Do the men share a common look about them? The ones who would hurt you and your family?”
“They will be wearing black suits,” Xander says, placing the pistol on his lap. “There will be three of them. No more, no less. A trinity of assholes. They travel like that. They will be armed. They will be looking for me. Well, the last incarnation of me. You and I will be the last people they’d expect to see.”
“Then we have the element of surprise!” The Priest says, encouraged. “How do we lure them out of the hospital?”
“Like I said, they’ll be expecting me. So, I’d like to run an idea past you.” Ferdinand agrees. Xander explains a possible plan that could see his family free of harm from the ruthless group compelled to end him and his Circle.
At the hospital, they park the cavalier, and Xander pays the machine. They walk into the hospital, and Xander buys a bouquet from the shop and asks at the front desk for the room housing his daughter. The receptionist gives the room number, and Xander passes a note to Ferdinand.
“Once we confirm they’re here, I will be waiting while you hand them the note. Tell them you were asked to deliver it for a hundred bucks.” He hands Ferdinand the bill. “They will have no reason to detain you. Then go on down the hall, as if you don’t understand what just happened.”
“Easy enough. And when this is done, you will teach me about the in-between.” He reasserts, heart-pumping along his bulging veins.
“You will be an excellent addition to a dying order,” Xander assures him, and the two men move through the halls to room 111. At the entrance to another hallway, they see their targets. As planned, they walk past the men, and then open the door, to get a glimpse into his daughter’s room. Xander’s nervous over what he might see and his untrained body’s reaction.
“Daddy,” a small voice from within the room calls out. Xander makes the mistake of glancing a second time into the room. The three men notice. “Daddy!” He keeps walking, a pain reminiscent of the knife he’d plunged into his heart to pull his daughter from the in-between slides into his chest. He smiles awkwardly at the three well-dressed assassins and continues to move down the hall. She must have felt his presence, he surmises. The connection from the in-between will have followed her into the now.
“Sir?” One of the men calls after Xander and Ferdinand. Xander turns, raising a hand to his chest to rub out the pain burying itself in his heart. He hears his wife speak softly to their daughter, assuring her the men outside her room were not her father. Xander takes a step toward the men. The Priest hesitates.
“Yes?” Xander responds to the assassins greeting. “I’m in a bit of a hurry, gentlemen.” He feels their stares upon him as they attempt to tie this impossibly fat man with the Xander they know. “Is there something I can help with?”
“Daddy, where are you going?!” The mood darkens in the hallway as the three men look at one another and take two steps toward Xander and the Priest.
“Do you know the women in this room?” The lead asks Xander, subtly pointing back to the room housing his wife and daughter.
“I’m not here for anyone but myself,” Xander explains. “Do I look like a man a woman might entertain?” He smiles and rubs his stomach. The assassins do not smile back. Xander looks over his shoulder to Ferdinand and forces a laugh. The Priest nods and grins back at his friend.
“Not in my experience!” Ferdinand tells the three men. “I’m just taking him to the cardio ward so,” he’s proud of himself for creating the lie until his story falls flat.
“Then you’re heading the wrong way.” The lead man in black offers. The tension in the hallway becomes nearly unbearable. “Your fat friend will be deceased before you get there.” He jokes. Ferdinand looks at Xander incredulously. They both laugh nervously, and the Priest takes Xander by the arm to move him down the hall the way they came.
“Much obliged,” Ferdinand tells the men. The lead stops them with a hand on Xander’s sweaty shoulder.
“Where are you from?” The assassin asks the Priest. “Your accent.”
“New Orleans,” Ferdinand says in his native drawl – the words merging into one. “Here to assist my friend through his heart attack.”
“Strange bedfellows.” The assassin says back. “Have a look at who I mean when I say do you know these women.” The man directs Xander to the room, and he sees his wife seated and bent over their daughter. His wife has a bandage on her forehead and a cast on her left arm. His daughter wears a neck brace and has been treated for multiple scratches on her pretty little face.
He can’t imagine facing these men down in open combat in his present form. They would need to be culled one at a time. If his daughter calls out Daddy again, the jig will be up. He watches her distractedly as she lifts her head from her book and smiles a bright, beautiful smile at Xander.
“Daddy! You look funny.” She giggles. Xander throws all of his weight into one of the assassins, crushing him against the small room’s west wall. Simultaneously, Ferdinand pulls his father’s gun on another and fires, taking the top of the assassin’s head off. Brains and blood bathe the white hospital room. The third man pulls a knife and jabs it into Xander’s ample stomach.
Ferdinand is in shock, the gun still raised as he watches the lifeless man fall to the floor, forcing more brains out onto the tile. He snaps out of it when he hears Xander scream. The assassin continues to stab at Xanders girth while Xander continues to close in on the man. He repositions the gun in his hands and fires at the assailant, hitting him in the shoulder. The gun’s sound is deafening in the small room, and both Xander’s wife and daughter are holding each other and screaming and covering their ears.
“Kick that one unconscious,” Xander manages to tell his friend, pointing behind him at the man struggling to stand. Next, he presses a pudgy finger into the wound Ferdinand’s bullet made in the assassin’s shoulder, and the man drops the knife. Xander counted five distinct stabs to his abdomen. He doesn’t expect to survive this ordeal. He will need a body. Xander drags the assassin down with his sheer weight and collapses on him.
Ferdinand pistol whips the first man – the lead – who drops to the floor once more. “Finish this one.” He hears Zander shout through the blood now slipping out of his wide mouth. The Priest looks at the mother and child on the bed and then at Xander’s dying mass laying atop the wounded assassin. He points his gun and fires, blowing the man’s face away from his head. “Choke the other one until dead,” Xander orders him. Ferdinand places a knee on the man’s throat. “No, don’t crush his esophagus. Just close his windpipe until he stops breathing.” Ferdinand obeys, and the man is dead. “Now me,” Xander says in nearly a whisper.
“Say again?” Ferdinand doesn’t understand. “Now, me! Shoot me!” Xander shouts with the last of his strength. Ferdinand trusts in his friends’ mad request, pulling the trigger, ending Xanders time in Thomas Cuddlephish’s frame.
Moments later and before security has made their inevitable appearance, the dead man the Priest had strangled sits up. Xander’s wife lets out a scream, and Ferdinand steps back, horrified.
“Daddy!” the little girl shouts, working her way free of her mother’s grasp. She leaps into the assassin’s arms. “Daddy, why are you playing these loud games?”
Xander rubs a hand along his neck and clears his new throat, dry from the strangulation. “I told you’d I’d be back, didn’t I, love?” He tells her in a weak voice. “You were a really fat man!” She tells him, easing off the hug, looking her father in the eyes. “But I saw you.” She places two fingers at her eyes and turns them on his. “I like you better like this, I think.” She giggles and embraces him again. Xander hugs her fiercely.
His wife is on all fours now, crawling her way to their daughter. She looks confused, scared, stunned. She will understand when he explains everything. But not here. They gather up their things and rush out of the hospital through the emergency doors at the end of the hall. An alarm sounds behind them as they pile into the cavalier. Ferdinand punches the gas, and they race toward Thomas Cuttlefish’s elaborate home along the lake in Winnetka in the hopes they would find sanctuary there.
As they pull up to the number on Thomas’ license, which Xander had retrieved from the fat man’s corpse, all four let out a sigh. It’s beautiful. It’s big, not unlike the man himself. It’s gated. Xander rifles through the wallet and pulls a PIN card with a security company’s name emblazoned on it. “Must be this.” He hands it to Ferdinand, and they wait. He swipes the card, and the gates open inward. The Priest drives his classic car onto the cobblestone drive and parks in one of seven spots marked on the driveway.
They enter the house the same way, with a swipe of the card—Xander’s wife trails with her daughter. Though an explanation had been offered upon the half-hour drive from Chicago’s downtown, it was admittedly a difficult thing to grasp.
“Find photos, and let’s make sure Thomas didn’t have a family waiting for him,” Xander tells the group.
“So, he was already dead when you found him?” His wife, Lexi, asks for the third time in a hushed tone. Xander takes her hands in his. She tentatively allows this. He knows he doesn’t look like her husband, but she’ll have time to adjust.
“It’s crazy, I know. But yes, the only way I can enter someone else’s body is if they’d just died. Literally.”
“And that’s why you had Ferdinand kill the third man?”
“Yes, and that they were there to harm you both.” Xander feels emotional. “For the immediate future, we are very safe here. They won’t I.D. Thomas’s body right away. I figure we have a night or two. Let’s just collect what will get us through the next little while and head back to New Orleans with Ferdinand.
“New Orleans!” His wife shouts. “I – we have a life here. We can’t just run away from it all.” She has a point, of course.
“We’ll return. But first, I need to make sure it’s safe for you – for us. Think of it as a vacation. New Orleans is on your bucket list. Well, now you’ll get the local experience. We’ll stay with Ferdinand and clear the way to return.” Xander wishes it would be that easy. He lays a reassuring hand on his wife’s shoulder, leans in to kiss her, but she pulls away, confused. Emotions dance across her pretty green eyes—fear, guilt, trust. The trust is waning, Xander determines. He turns to face an ornate mirror. He studies himself in this strange man’s skin. He’s handsome. He got that right this time. He feels around the torso – a well-maintained frame. His comfort level has shot up a hundred-fold in this body. “Not bad, considering,” he says to himself and looks to his wife carefully. “You saw my last incarnation.” He smiles, and she smiles back guardedly. He softens to her. “Do you think you could still love me like this?”
“This,” she says flatly, “is the strangest thing I’ve ever experienced, Xander. Who – what are you that you can jump bodies? You’re a – a body-snatcher!” Remembering the classic movie forces a laugh. Xander laughs with her.
“I’m sworn to secrecy, Tori, as you must have realized.” He explains. “It’s still me – I’m still me. What I do, it’s like a trick.”
“Like a magician, Daddy?” His daughter says from the couch. Her damaged ribs are still wrapped tightly under her shirt, and the head wound is covered now by a hat she’s found. Xander looks over, lovingly at his daughter.
“Yes, Jenny, like a Magician. It’s a learned thing. Like sawing a woman in half. Or pulling a coin from your ear.” He turns back to his wife of seven years. “It’s just a little more complicated.”
“No, shit,” Lexi says and then looks at Jenny apologetically. “Sorry, baby. Bad word.”
“It’s okay, mommy.” Jenny picks up a book from the coffee table and turns its pages.
“I see no signs of a wife or children in this great house,” Ferdinand says, interrupting the conversation. “We are safe for the moment.”
“Is he a body-snatcher too?” Lexi asks, pointing at Ferdinand.
“Ah, no, Mademoiselle. At least, not yet, eh, Xander!” The Priest sits next to Jenny and taps the brim of her hat playfully. Jenny snickers.
“Right,’’ Xander turns back to his wife. “Ferdinand has a special connection to the – well, to what I can do. He will learn.”
“Will you teach me?” Lexi asks, her eyes growing wider in anticipation.
“You? No, I-it’s too dangerous.”
“It’s dangerous to be connected to you without such tricks. Make it safer for Jenny and me. Teach us.” Lexi is serious. Xander hadn’t considered the possibility. Could it happen? Could he bring this truth upon them? He is the last of his kind. Like his friend, the Irishman, who enrolled him one-hundred years earlier, he could bring his family into the fold.
“It’s not a thing to take lightly, and I don’t know if Jenny would really understand -“
“Just shut up and explain it,” Lexi tells him in no uncertain terms, seating herself next to Ferdinand on the couch. Xander looks at all three. Each set of eyes study his. Could he be so lucky as to spend forever with his small family? Would it right the wrong of losing the family he’d had all those years ago? Xander launches into the speech he was given so long ago.
“Those like me, who protect the wisdom, are sanctioned to reveal it to a chosen few to keep our numbers flush.”
Perhaps the Circle will survive.
The Sacred Circle by Michael Poeltl – Find more short stories here